By Phil Zarns
October 28, 2008
Moving to Sweden, I needed to learn the language. As I walked into my first day at class, I froze at the door while twenty pairs of eyes shifted towards me. I realized that I was the sole American in a classroom full of Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish students. Grabbing the front right hand seat, I listened to Arabic flying across the desks behind me.
Being slipstreamed into my “Swedish for Foreigners,” my mind struggled to combine the Swedish that I already knew with the Yoda-esque grammatics now before me. Strangely enough, my situation was like my Iraqi friends: We were foreign to Sweden. Our teacher, Anna, corrected our pronunciation with a rhythmic clapping of each syllable. She was an older lady who had taught Swedish for thirty years to rooms full of foreigners who had been reduced to speaking at an elementary level. Doctors, lawyers, professors from other nations were now learning how to say phrases together like, “Can I please have a cup of coffee?” We made it through the first hour-and-a-half by laughing at each other.
Anna started to call me ‘Dr. Phil’. I was the man who was to embody all things American, simply because I was an American. As my new name was passed around the room, from behind me in a muttered undertone I heard, "George Bush."
I knew that I wanted to make an impact in my classmates’ lives. Keeping it simple, I brought two dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies to class. I saw smiles on people that I had only seen frowns from before.
After learning that I was Christian, they became interested in what I thought about Jesus, and asked a number of times about His life. I told them how my heart was changed and felt clean. They kept asking more and more questions. Riding the train home, I realized that the most unlikely country, Sweden, had become an open door into the world of the Middle East.
One of the Iraqi women in my class was a Mandaean (Man-dee-an). Her small religion (70,000 worldwide) consisted of a distrust of Moses, Abraham, and Jesus Christ. Her faith regarded John the Baptist, a cousin to Jesus, as being a major prophet. In her country, she had to confess to being a Muslim, so that the government wouldn’t kill her and her family. For religious freedom and safety, she moved away and waited for her husband to follow her. She told me that once he had left, the government took their house, cars, and all of their material belongings. I simply listened.
She then told me that her brother had died in fighting with other Iraqis.
“He was handsome”, she said of him. “He had green eyes.”
I asked, “So, it wasn’t with American soldiers that he was killed?”
“No, it was people from my own country.” Confirming it was a Sunni/Shi’ite conflict, she told me that she had pictures she wanted to show me of the fighting and the state of her country.
Feeling an unspoken tension between us, I asked the only question I could think of. “Would you bring them to class, I’d like to see your perspective.”
She got excited and said she’d ask her husband. Together, we walked to the next classroom where he was studying Swedish to ask him. He was a respectably dressed man, who in his life in Iraq had taught Engineering at the University.
“Of course.”, he said, “I’ll bring them tomorrow.”
The next day, I met him at break time and pulled the pictures up onto the screen. He started to give play-by-play explanations of what I was seeing. I saw pictures of people being dragged behind a car, multiple “kneeling” executions and men beaten beyond recognition. He told me that this is what has happened in Iraq because of the lack of government caused by the occupation of the U.S. military.
As I asked more questions, he said that they were "thankful for the initial dethroning of Saddam Hussein, yet they were hoping that the U.S. would leave the country after two to three months." Then he explained the final picture, which as we scrolled to it, genuinely startled me. A man had his heart cut out, and a thermal grenade was shoved in its place. The resulting image was of his half exposed skull and jawbone, charred along the remaining flesh, accompanied by a scorched hole in his chest with his collarbone burned clean white.
He said that these atrocities were done by fellow Iraqi countrymen, again as a result of Shi’ite/Sunni conflicts in Iraq. His family moved to Sweden so that no one would be kidnapped and held for ransom. When he was a professor in Iraq, he gave everybody straight A’s, all of his students were passed for fear of being taken himself.
There were some Iraqis in my class who were thankful that the U.S. military was still there, and some wanted the soldiers to go home. I heard two completely opposite opinions about the situation in Iraq from Iraqis, and they argued often in the middle of class blending Swedish and Arabic. It sounded simultaneously funny and angry.
I felt compelled to ask, “What do you think of me? I’m an American, but at the same time I’m a foreigner. I’m in class with your wife, and am learning the same language you are.”
His grim stare changed to a huge ear-to-ear smile as he said, “You are my friend, I will say hello, nice to meet you. And I look forward to seeing you again.”
I wondered what had happened for him to say that. Maybe the days that I had spent in class with his wife learning Swedish together had given him a different perspective into who I was as a lover of Jesus, and I had more than a glimpse into the new life given to Iraqis here in Sweden. In the midst of war and politics, we are all people. Flesh and Blood.